Colleges and universities learned decades ago that they could not maintain a quality education program on student tuition and state aid alone. Today, public school districts have arrived at the same place. Local tax levies and state aid are no longer sufficient to meet rising district costs. Unless this fiscal dilemma is solved, more school districts will be consolidated, more will be forced into four-day work-weeks, and many will lose students to educational alternatives brought about by school choice.

With many districts facing statutory upper limits on local tax rates and rigorous state budget constraints, these traditional revenue sources are barely able to keep pace with negotiated salary increases and other operating costs.

Where, then, is the money going to come from to underwrite enhancements to the academic program? Where is the money coming from to build or expand robotics classrooms and technologically advanced classrooms? New programs, of course, require more professional development opportunities. Where is the money coming for those?

The nation’s colleges and universities faced this funding squeeze decades ago when they discovered that student tuition and state aid would never be enough to support a strong academic program.

How did they solve the problem?

They solved it by aggressively pursuing discretionary grants from the nation’s over 80,000 private and corporate foundations and dozens of federal and state government grant making agencies. Today, most colleges and universities derive nearly 50 percent of their operating revenues from these and other charitable revenue sources.

Ask yourself this question: “What is the most simplistic difference between a college or university and your school district?” Each have buildings and grounds to maintain. Each have staff and faculty salaries. Each have similar overhead expenses like heat, electricity, and insurance.

Answer: In the most simplistic sense, the only difference between a college or university and a public school district is the age of the students. Everything else is similar. So how is it that colleges and universities need grants to survive and public school districts do not? Let that sink for a minute.

The truth is, as each year goes by, public school districts come ever-closer to cutting into core programs, or merging with neighboring districts, or as in some cases, reducing to a four-day work week. That is, of course, unless they take a very serious look at implementing an aggressive grants development program that goes well beyond applying for basic entitlement grants.

We are not talking about new program grants here that consume staff time to implement and operate and have a time-limited duration. Instead, we are talking about grants that go directly to the bottom line, like equipment and other capital items that you would necessarily budget for.

Examples include building renovation, cafeteria kitchen equipment, security measures, and classroom technology grants. Also included are grants for professional staff development, energy conservation measures including wind turbines and solar energy panels, and furniture grants. Does your athletic field need artificial turf? Relieving your budget of these capital items frees up dollars for general operating expenses and other program activities.

Okay, you might ask, who among our district staff has time to do this? We are already as lean as we can possibly be.

Make Grant Seeking a District Priority:

As a school board, you must recognize that the fiscal constraints facing your district require affirmative action to resolve. The problem will not go away by itself. Communicate your concerns to your superintendent and his or her leadership team at upcoming board meetings. Ask what grant development actions are being taken to pursue competitive discretionary grants from foundations and government. Chances are, if they are typical of most school districts, their answers will concern you. Chances are, they are doing very little in this regard.

This is where school boards must recognize their fiduciary responsibilities to the district. It is up to the board to ensure that the district remains financially sound and that the district provides a quality education program. It is in this capacity that the school board’s wishes must be made clearly known to the district staff. In other words, if the board gets serious about pursuing grants, the superintendent will too.

Identify District Needs:

The next step is to identify what grant supportable needs exist within the district. Unlike philanthropists who donate on the basis of emotional appeals, grants makers award grants on the basis of documented needs. Such needs must be compelling and supportable with data. They must also be able to compete against the needs presented by other grant seeking school districts.

One way to do this is for the district superintendent to identify three to five members of his her faculty and staff who tend to be optimistic thinkers to serve on what is called a “Research and Development Task Force” or “R&D Task Force for short. The mission of the R&D Task Force is to identify grant supportable needs or programs within the district.

Examples might include anything from new cafeteria kitchen equipment, to installing artificial turf on the athletic field, to enhancing classroom technology, to more effective building security systems, to professional staff development. The possible grant supportable needs list is endless.

Each identified need should be documented in no more than two pages having four sections titled as follows:

  1. Description of the Need: Using whatever metrics are available, describe the need for your proposed project or activity. The more compellingly the need is described, the more likely grant makers will support it. For example, if you are describing the need for additional building security measures, state the unique risk factors your district faces.
  2. Proposed Solution: Provide a step-wise methodology on precisely how you propose to address the need. If it is for energy conservation matters, describe what and where energy conservation devices will be installed, and who will be doing the installation. Describe how these energy conservation measures will be evaluated.
  3. Anticipated Benefits: This is where you do the selling. Explain clearly what benefits would result from the successful implementation of your proposed program. In the energy conservation project, tell what the annual energy savings will be and compute the payback period.
  4. Budget: Prepare a line item budget along with a justification for each component expenditure, e.g., equipment purchase price, installation expense, etc.

Gather together each two-page project summary and assign a priority ranking for each. Those ranked priority #1 will be addressed first. Priority #2 will be addressed next, and so on until all projects are funded with grants.

Explore Grant Sources

Next, begin gathering grant source information. Grant directories can be purchased from the Foundation Center in New York City. Another excellent grant source is the Monthly Education Grants Alert (MEGA). This e-publication comes out monthly and is available on a subscription basis.

Begin the process of matching district needs with the giving interests of identified grant makers. Where those matches are found, create a mechanism to systematically prepare and submit grant applications each and every week to targeted grant makers.

The Management Decision

Now that you have concluded that there are numerous grant opportunities available to your district, the next step is to find the most cost-effective way to pursue them. You have essentially four options as follows:

  1. Use existing faculty and staff to pursue grants: Here, you essentially add grant seeking to the daily list of tasks performed by your faculty and staff. Depending upon existing work loads, this may not be a viable option for most school districts.
  2. Hire a full-time grant writer: Adding a full-time grant writer is one of the best ways of developing a productive grant seeking program, however salary, benefits, and overhead costs, plus finding a person sufficiently skilled in grant writing makes this a risky option.
  3. Outsource the grant seeking function to professional consultants: Not unlike outsourcing food service, janitorial service, legal, and accounting s services, outsourcing the grant seeking function to professional consultants skilled in grant seeking is one of the most cost effective and least risky approaches to pursue. Robert J. Miller & Associates, Inc. provides this service.
  4. Do nothing about seeking grants: This is far and away the most costly grant seeking option as measured by the cost of lost opportunity. Grants are floating right by your district and you are letting them get away.


If necessity is the mother of invention, the time has come for all school districts to aggressively pursue grants for two compelling reasons. First, as stated above, school districts can no longer underwrite existing programs and services from local tax levies and state aid alone. Like colleges and universities, they need grant income to sustain basic operations.

A second and possibly more compelling reason for school districts to pursue grants is to protect themselves from the competitive pressures of school choice now afforded to families throughout America. Competing for students means having state-of-the-art classrooms and 21st century academic programs. Grants can make this possible.

By Erica R. Miller, MA, COO Robert J. Miller & Associates, Inc.

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